Each generation of professional wrestling fans seem to have the same nostalgic complaints as the last: pro wrestling, they claim, isn’t as good as it used to be.
Either these fans long for when the business seemed more legitimate as Bruno Sammartino’s slow, deliberate grappling matches led to his historic seven-year WWWF World Championship reign, or they reminisce about strong kayfabe as Jim Cornette and the Midnight Express were chased by lynch mobs due to their credible heel heat. Some talk about the unprecedented boom of “rock ‘n’ wrestling,” as Hulkamania led the likes of Mr T, Cyndi Lauper and Alice Cooper into full stadiums, or they even cite the examples of “Attitude,” when Austin 3:16 and D-Generation X shot ratings through the roof.
There have been repeated claims that these were all high points in a business that operated in “cycles,” comparing it to the “boom and bust” capitalist economy. But this assertion is incorrect, long since exposed as fallacious by the likes of James Guttman, author of World Wrestling Insanity, in which he points out that if these “cycles” were natural, the product’s quality would not matter – the cycles would come and go regardless, and high points would occur even if the product itself was dire. He’s right, of course: the product has hit downturns when dependent on, say, the late Nelson “Mabel” Frazier main eventing Pay-Per-View shows, or registering low ratings and buy-rates with supposed flag-bearer John Cena headlining.
So – as with the economy – there are actual built-in causes of why there are peaks and valleys; factual reasons for why things boom, and why they also take a dip. John Cena himself is a modern symbol of what pro wrestling has become, leaving the fan-base forever nostalgic as a result: every single successful era of the past will be longed for, because it’s not melodramatic to say the industry lost its soul long before John Cena came along and botched moves while refusing to sell effectively, or turn heel. No, again there are facts behind the causes of the state of the business as it stands today, and John Cena’s merchandising machine is only a hint.
Professional wrestling as we knew it arguably died on October 19th, 1999. Though it may not register as a significant date in pro wrestling history, for fans it truly was the end of the world as we knew it.
Remember Titan Sports? It was the McMahon parent company of the World Wrestling Federation, and even gave the WWF’s headquarters its name: Titan Towers. Titan Sports, Inc was simply Vince McMahon’s parent company that even launched the disastrous World Bodybuilding Federation, as doomed as any outside venture is when Vince forgets that he truly is himself a good old boy who promotes “wrasslin’,” all the while trying to gain tax breaks and avoid regulation even if he has to side with Republicans (or have his wife become one) to do it.
Yes, the WBF was doomed, and so was the XFL, as McMahon’s response to being blocked out from any attempt of either investing in the NFL, or buying the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts or even the CFL itself. While the XFL – unlike the inherently flawed, one show per-year WBF – had potential and even introduced some good ideas, McMahon had made too many enemies outside of his allies at NBC, and it only enjoyed a single season. But the XFL may hold the key to the demise of pro wrestling as we knew it…
Many believe McMahon needed more money than he had access to in order to launch the XFL in the year 2000. Keep in mind that the WBF was simply an organisation with around a dozen signed stars, a weekly “BodyStars” show, and one Pay-Per-View event in the whole calendar. The XFL was to be a legitimate American football league, with eight full teams, televised games, and prime time television contracts and slots. It was huge. It lost around $35 million of McMahon money.
Except, it wasn’t McMahon’s money, was it?
On October 19th, 1999, Titan Sports was no more – in its place, World Wrestling Federation Entertainment was floated on the stock exchange, opening up portions of its ownership to the public via share offerings.
As illogical and nonsensical as a World Wrestling Federation “entertainment” company sounds – particularly given Vince McMahon’s hatred of the word “wrestling” – what this enabled Vince to do was take so much of that money from shareholders who were aware of the recent booming WWF product and pump it into WWFE, Inc. No, this isn’t industriousness based on any kind of meritocracy – this is the ability to do business with money earned by other people in other industries (and, funnily enough, part of the reason why the economy also booms and busts…it’s unstable).
As a result, ever since the XFL collapsed and Vince had to go back to being a “wrasslin'” promoter yet again. However, this time, he wasn’t dictated to by popular trends of his audience (previously described as exemplified by South Park and Celebrity Deathmatch) – the shareholders held him to account, and anything that seemed risky or dangerous was rejected. There could be no experiments influenced by ECW, for example. Even if they wanted to ultimately make more money by taking Vince’s infamous risks, this couldn’t be done by WWFE (or WWE, as it would ridiculously become, after legal action from the Worldwide Fund for Nature – or World Wildlife Fund as they wanted to be known again, in order to snatch the precious wwf.com domain). The steady ship of status quo had to be sailed along with a deck full of ravenous shareholders who, for all intents and purposes, didn’t necessarily understand or even care for pro wrestling.
This agenda of status quo means we can expect no chances to be taken on pushing someone as a star greater than those who have already been proven: Brock Lesnar, Undertaker, The Rock, Batista, Triple H himself. One need look no further than this to see why CM Punk fails to main event WrestleMania and subsequently takes his ball and goes home a la Steve Austin, or why a John Cena heel turn can’t be left to chance, especially with the t-shirt and toy sales he currently posts as a babyface – no Hulk Hogan New World Order swerve will be planned, simply because the shareholders won’t understand such a reference point or see how this could generate revenue greater than his multi-coloured merchandise.
At some point, when the NXT developmental well dries up, and/or the cookie-cutter approach and Hollywood bookers fail the product, risk-taking may be the only option. Especially if the shares drop enough.
-Jay Baker 🤜